We’ve been perceived for decades as a county of the rich, with streets practically paved in gold. But does that perception have any merit?
What does it take nowadays for someone to be rich in Westchester — and are you one of them?
By Marisa Iallonardo
A nearby airport where you can jet off on a private plane? Check. A slew of country clubs to join? Check. Residents who regularly make the Forbes list of richest people in the US? Check.
These are all markers of affluence, something that Westchester is no stranger to: The county counts nine of its communities among the top 100 richest in the entire nation, according to Bloomberg. The median household income is close to $90,000, says recent government data, some $30,000 above the national median. Median household incomes can top $200,000 in some of the county’s toniest towns. And that’s not to mention the many amenities that abound, from high-end restaurants with $30 entrées to pricey fitness classes to just about every designer brand you can think of (whether it’s a handbag or a car).
All of this begs the question: Is everyone who lives here rich?
The short answer is no — definitely not. If we start with the self-identification route, a whopping 91 percent of people who took our online survey (see page 46 for poll results) asking that very question say they don’t consider themselves rich. And more concrete numbers say this: About 10 percent of people in Westchester are living below the poverty line, according to government data — and there are affordable-housing units in every single municipality except two, says Norma Drummond, commissioner of the Westchester County Department of Planning.
“Is everyone in Westchester rich? Of course not. Are there rich people? Sure. But, then, there are rich people everywhere,” says Bedford resident Jon Brodsky, country manager at financial website Finder.com. Local Certified Financial Planner practitioner Nahum Daniels echoes the sentiment: “The statistics tell the story: A large number of people living in Westchester earn relatively high incomes and enjoy higher net worths, but not everyone would be considered ‘rich.’ You can still live well in Westchester without being rich. Can you do it on a budget? You can.”
The long answer has to take into consideration some of the assumptions, stereotypes, and perceptions about Westchesterites. Here, we explore a few of the most ubiquitous.
Everyone in Westchester Owns a Multimillion-Dollar Home
Let’s get some numbers out of the way first: The average sales price of a Westchester home (Q2 2018) is $676,528. Fourteen percent of homes in the county are valued at a million dollars or higher, while the plurality, about 38 percent, fall between $500,000 to $999,999, according to government data.
Most real estate salespeople will tell you they have homes that hit all the price points: “We have clients with budgets of $300,000 to multimillions, depending on the areas where they are looking to live,” say Douglas Elliman agents Nancy Strong and Stacey Oestreich. “Our clients in Rye typically have a budget of more than $2 million, and our clients in Cortlandt Manor typically have budgets in the $300,000 to $600,000 range. These two distinctly different budgets can afford buyers a three- to four-bedroom home of the approximate same square footage. It all depends on the town they are interested in at the time, as well as the land, location, and condition of the property.”
But, as Strong and Oestreich suggest, it does, of course, depend on where you choose to call home. Kristin Marquet, who moved to Westchester with her husband from Manhattan in 2015, says they looked at more than 15 houses before settling on one in Scarsdale. “Yes, we had to exceed the $1 million mark to find the home we wanted,” which still needs renovations, she says. But she’s very happy, noting fewer crowds and more space.
With a median home value of more than $1.3 million, Scarsdale has a rep as one of the most exclusive towns in the country. Yet, sometimes the perception that a town is pricey doesn’t necessarily mean it is.
“A couple of towns that have a reputation for being expensive or exclusive but have many affordable homes are Armonk, Bedford, and Chappaqua. There is still great value in these areas that is worth exploring,” say Strong and Oestreich. Examples include (on the market as of late-fall 2018) a 1,700+ sq. ft., 3-bedroom, 2.1-bath Contemporary in Armonk that needs a kitchen update for $618,000; a 4-bedroom 2.1-bath property in Bedford with an in-ground pool for $749,000; and an 1802 Chappaqua farmhouse that used to be an apple-cider-vinegar factory with four bedrooms and two bathrooms for $649,999.
Julia Stapleton and her family found that Northern Westchester was right for them. She and her husband had a home-buying budget of $400,000 to $500,000, and though they looked in White Plains and as far north as Katonah, settled on Mount Kisco. “We narrowed it down to Mount Kisco because it seemed like taxes- and housing-wise, we could get the best bang for our buck,” says the business-office manager for a small, local private school. Ultimately, they bought a three-bedroom home for $510,000, which has a Mount Kisco mailing address and is within the Bedford school system.
“We love it. The neighborhood is great. There are a lot of families in transition, so there are a lot of people moving in with babies and young kids,” she says, citing block parties and other events.
*Results are from an online poll at westchestermagazine.com, taken by approximately 1,500 county residents.
For some, though, the cost is still prohibitive. Annette Wolfe, who works in the facilities department for a telecom company and lives in Shelton, CT, is looking to move to Westchester for an easier commute to her Stamford office, as well as access to the train and volunteer opportunities. But with a budget of $1,200 to $1,300 a month for rent, she feels priced out of the Hartsdale and Valhalla neighborhoods she’s hoping to call home. “I know I will get there — it’s just a matter of the right time,” she says.
Affordable-housing options are also more prevalent in the county, Drummond says. “There’s no single definition of affordable housing,” she says. “Different housing programs will have different income requirements.” And while local communities aren’t required to report their affordable-housing units to the county, the county does monitor about 3,400 of them — and there are hundreds more slated for construction. Drummond says more than 14,000 households are signed up to receive email alerts when new affordable-housing options are posted on the county’s Homeseeker website, which lists the units.
Overall, Westchester remains a popular living destination, particularly among city dwellers looking to make a move. “Westchester is by far the most requested area for people looking to go from NYC urban [including Manhattan, Brooklyn, Hoboken, Jersey City, Long Island City, etc.] to suburban,” says Alison Bernstein, a local resident and founder and president of the real-estate/lifestyle firm Suburban Jungle.
Everyone in Westchester Wants Their Kid to Go to an Ivy League School
Another popular stereotype about affluent areas like Westchester is that all parents are perfect-SAT-score pushers, in pursuit of that golden Ivy League ticket. Here, where close to 50 percent of Westchesterites over 25 years old have an advanced degree (a bachelor’s or higher, according to government data), it is plausible. But is it accurate?
“If someone were to say that everybody in Westchester wants their kid to go to Harvard, I don’t think that’s accurate,” says Jeff Bates, the director of college counseling and one of the 12th-grade deans at Rye Country Day School in Rye. And while he acknowledges that the broader community might be a bit more susceptible to the pull of the Ivies and other highly selective schools than other populations, he says, “I work with so many parents who don’t have those specified expectations for their students.”
There are, unquestionably, students who are thinking of the Ivy League and other well-rated schools. From 2014-2018, the top five schools Rye Country Day graduates attended were: Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, New York University, and Colgate University. But, Bates says, the choices and reasons for picking a school extend beyond such trends: Some students may want to pursue art, go to a conservatory, or simply keep playing their preferred sport in college.
“From our standpoint, we’re going to meet everyone where they are,” says Bates of their college-counseling philosophy. “Students who do it really well wind up learning a great deal about themselves and the world, whether they get into their absolute first choice or not.”
It’s similar at Pleasantville High School. “I think that students do try to cast a wide net on the colleges they’re looking at,” says Joyce Connell, coordinator of the high school counseling department. The number of places students apply has steadily increased — both at Pleasantville and nationwide — says Connell, who estimates it’s about seven or eight applications per student these days.
Sometimes, even if a student does get into the Ivy League, it’s not feasible to attend. “We told my daughter that she could apply anywhere but that we had a limited amount of money for college and thought that $25,000 in tuition was the most we could pay,” says physical therapist Rachel Kaminer, whose kids went to White Plains High School. Her daughter, Rose, was accepted into Cornell, and even though she wanted to go, she ultimately chose The Cooper Union in New York City, mostly for financial reasons.
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Now a sophomore studying mechanical engineering, Rose is happy with the decision. “I think I made the right choice by coming here. I will not have to leave college in debt, and I love the school’s culture,” she says. And while she also doesn’t think most students in the county are obsessd with joining the Ivy League, she does say, “Most people I knew wanted to go to well-known, prestigious schools.”
Still, sometimes it’s about looking even further into the future. “The college selection process has gotten so random that even valedictorians aren’t getting into/going to the Ivy Leagues. Also, the price of college has gotten sufficiently exorbitant that no matter how ‘rich’ you are, it is a factor,” says Liz Walsh, who works in fundraising at a local hospital and whose daughter also attended White Plains High School and went on to college in Rhode Island. “Additionally, college is just the beginning. Now, so many students go on to graduate school that it’s not a four-year plan anymore but a six- to seven-year plan.”
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Everyone in Westchester Buys Their Teen a Car at 16
The myth is this: If you were to pan over a high school parking lot in Westchester, you might see it packed with BMWs and other high-end cars that the students’ parents gifted with big, red bows on their 16th birthdays. The reality is, as always, a bit more complicated.
“In White Plains, if you drove by the student parking lot of the high school, you will not see it full. You will see all types of cars, most of them not luxurious or expensive but reliable and affordable,” says stay-at-home mom Lesley Friedman, a White Plains resident whose daughter recently turned 16. “Even so, there are plenty of available spaces for kids who drive to school to park their cars — once again showing that for such a large population of kids, there are many who do not have their own cars to drive to school.”
Friedman and her husband did not buy their daughter a car, but Friedman’s mother-in-law did offer to. They plan to buy a Subaru, for its “reliability and reputation,” she says. Friedman notes that while some of her daughter’s friends do own their own cars, others don’t — and still others share with siblings.
At Pepe Infiniti in White Plains, general sales manager Talles M. Guimaraes says, “Given that we are a 90 percent lease market, most parents who are shopping for a car for their kids, are likely to buy new [lease] as opposed to pre-owned. Very few parents actually come in to buy a luxury car outright. A small percentage of those buyers actually purchase a pre-owned vehicle.” He does acknowledge that the dealership doesn’t have many cars below the $15,000-20,000 mark, which may account for why they don’t necessarily see that buyer.
When a parent does lease or buy a car for their teenager, it’s usually the entry-level model, he says. “In our case, vehicles that have a lease payment of $350 to $400 per month,” like an Infiniti Q50 or Qx30. “These tend to be trendy models at affordable pricing.”
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For some parents, there’s simply the practicality of having another driver in the house. “We made a family decision to lease a third car so that my daughter could get herself to and from swim practice and also help in driving her younger brother to his extracurricular activities, as I had begun to work full-time,” says Walsh, who leased a new car and handed down her Toyota Rav4 to her daughter.
Friedman echoes that. “I do a lot of driving for my kids’ various activities,” she says. “Getting my daughter a car will definitely cut down on my driving and help when I need to be in two places at one time. My daughter is aware that having a car, and driving in general, is a huge responsibility, and it is not taken lightly.”
That responsibility can serve teens well in the future, too. “With the independence and self-reliance she gained by having her own car, it helped make the transition to college easier on both of us,” says Walsh.
Everyone in Westchester Spends Like They Don't Have a Budget
Let’s face it, there’s no shortage of things to spend your money on here, from everyday essentials to big-ticket items to everything in-between. But are Westchesterites blowing their budgets without thinking twice?
“The clients I work with are fiscally responsible. In my experience, I find that families living in Westchester are focused on spending money in ways that benefit the future of their families in a positive way,” says Daniels, the Certified Financial Planner practitioner. “I’m sure there’s plenty of conspicuous consumption spending that goes on in Westchester, just as it does in many other centers of affluence in our country, but I certainly can’t say it’s any worse here than it is
But that doesn’t mean keeping the spending sprees at bay is always easy. “Even though I know what I should and shouldn’t spend, and keep a mental ledger,” says Christina Cedrone of Ossining, who works in financial services, “I still feel like looking at my bank account balance on a Monday morning — after weekend spending and activities — can feel like getting on a scale the morning after Thanksgiving. So I tend to check it less often than I should, especially when I know we have been spending gratuitously.”
For some, it takes a lifestyle shift to see a difference. “We totally spent like we didn’t have a budget,” says Yonkers resident Alessandra Suarez, who works at a nursery center at a local gym and was formerly in sales/finance for close to a decade. “Not because we are in Westchester, per se, but because we like nice things. We would rather have spent than saved. Now, we just can’t live like that anymore. We were living paycheck to paycheck and surrounded by wasted food and ‘nice’ things.”
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The family began to focus on their budget when Suarez decided to stay home for 18 months with her children. These days, she says, they meal-prep, budget for groceries, and set up automatic savings transfers.
“Our reality set in; we hit the reset button; now we are living happier, worrying less about money,” says the Westchester native.
One area where Daniels does see people spending freely is on education. “I have found that where spending becomes unbridled is when it comes to their children’s educations. Among my friends and clients living in Westchester, education is the number-one priority, and they don’t hold back when it comes to cost.”
Everyone in Westchester Has Hired Help
Though some may believe Westchesterites have Downton Abbey-level help for everything from dressing in the morning to turning down the sheets at bedtime, those of us who live here know better.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not some market for these types of services, albeit the 2019 equivalents. LifeWorx, which first opened in Chappaqua and has since expanded to include three other offices, specializes in providing home-and-lifestyle services. That includes chefs, butlers, organizers, and other luxury services, says founder and CEO Bal Agrawal. But, these luxe options are not that common.
Currently, the most in-demand services offered by the company, which has some 1,000 potential candidates available, are childcare, elder care, and housekeeping.
Indeed, childcare, housekeeping, and yardwork seem to make up the bulk of the hired help that Westcherites employ, for a variety of reasons.
Take childcare, for instance: “There are many families who do not have hired help and many who use afterschool programs in their districts in lieu of hired help,” says Jennifer Yamuder, who lives in Hawthorne and works as childcare coordinator at au pair agency Cultural Care Au Pair. “Families who host au pairs range from stay-at-home parents who want a little me-time or those with several children who need to go in different directions, and they cannot fulfill all their obligations on their own. We also, of course, have many moms and dads who work outside the home or within the home and need the care.”
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Yamuder, who works both in matching families and, locally, doing things like conducting home visits, says that for families who have the room and can work within the guidelines (e.g., no more than 10 hours a day of childcare), the au pair program is popular. Why? “I think for many reasons, but to name a few, I would say cultural exchange, having children exposed to a new language or a language the family is already familiar with, and of course, cost, as it is very affordable when compared with Westchester County nanny prices.”
But with an average commute time to work of 34 minutes — one of the longest in the state, as per government data — coupled with generally long working hours, it’s the time commitment that often leads Westchesterites to look for help.
“We both work full-time, and I just never feel like I can keep up with anything at home, and it helps keep me at peace,” says Stapleton of the twice-monthly cleaning service she and her husband hired once their elder son was out of daycare.
On the flip side, Thornwood resident Vincenzo Muffoletto, a salesman for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, started out doing yardwork himself: After moving from the Bronx five years ago, Muffoletto spent the first four of them mowing his 1.8 acres of land — a process that would often take him days. His three kids, all in their 20s, intervened: “It was so much for me, that my kids saw what was going on and got together and got me a landscaper,” he says.
So, where does that leave us? Mostly back where we started. This is to say, not everyone who lives in Westchester is rich (how could they be?) but that there are perceptions and assumptions like the ones we’ve explored here, in addition to many others.
But, as Pleasantville schools superintendent Mary Fox-Alter, who thinks the perception that everyone in Westchester is rich is inaccurate, says, “Having a level of diversity from an economic perspective, from a cultural perspective, only enhances being able to live and raise a family in this county.” And whether you live in a mega-mansion with butlers who serve you breakfast in bed every day, or that’s just something on your bucket list, the story, as it often does, lies somewhere in-between. And that is definitely worth talking about.
Marisa Iallonardo grew up in Yonkers and now lives in White Plains with her husband and two young kids. She writes regularly about lifestyle, health, and parenting.